Simo Ahava’s thoughts on why data doesn’t tell you anything


Simo Ahava – husband, father and analyst superstar – will explain to you why your data might be meaningless – and how to change it.

In the lead up to the Google Tag Management Masterclass Josefine Rasmussen, good friend of the ‘house’ (IIH) did some research, exchanged numerous emails and calls with Simo to put together this article.

With great powers…

Simo’s keynote presentation at Superweek 2019

Simo Ahava has a strong reputation in the online data & analytics field. He is recognized for his extensive knowledge on customizing Web Analytics and Tag Management Solutions – so much that he has been appointed as one of only a handful of Google Developer Experts in these areas globally. Even so, he is humble about his own influence:
“I very much dislike the concept of ‘thought leadership’ and I cringe whenever someone tries to associate me with that. I think the most valuable thing anyone proclaiming to be an expert can do is pay it forward”.
Ahava is known for sharing his knowledge liberally and can often be found in online communities assisting people with their data collection problems. Amongst other topics, he often talks about the need for customization in Web Analytics. But what is customization, and why do we need it?

Data doesn’t (always) beat opinion

One of the things Ahava helps others to understand, is why Google Analytics is somewhat handicapped until you customize the implementation. By doing so, he tackles a long-standing myth in the digital world, that data is always better than experience or gut-feeling.
“Pure opinion can, and will, “beat” data, if data is of bad quality or if the interpretations are flawed” – Simo Ahava, “Data is difficult” (2015)
When discussing why this is, he comments: “Data doesn’t show or tell anything – a human being interpreting the data shows and tells something based on the data. It’s produced by the organization, interpreted by the people, and controlled by algorithms that have been trained and tweaked by people”.
Ahava stresses that the numbers we see in our Google Analytics Dashboard can change dramatically, if we change our collection mechanisms. An example of this is the measuring of bounces. Bounce rates are often used as a key metric when measuring if the customer engages with the content, but Ahava deplores us to consider this: If a customer “bounces” and leaves the website, then Google Analytics does not record how much time the customer spent, or what the customer did: It only registers a bounce.
We might have a 40% bounce rate on a site, but without measuring anything else, what does this tell us? Not very much, says Simo Ahava. Luckily, there is something we can do about it.

What you measure is what you get

Simo (Right) together with Steen Rasmussen (Left), IIH Co-founder at Superweek 2019.

There are many ways to measure how the customer interact with content on the webpage: Active time, idle time, time spent scrolling, clicking, highlighting, hovering with the mouse, text copied to clipboard, sign-up for newsletters, video-plays, social shares and much more. Ahava reminds us that none of these are encoded by default in our Google Analytics. By neglecting to measure these, our data doesn’t tell us much:
“The problem is that with no customization, GA has very limited uses. It doesn’t know how your business works – it doesn’t know the idiosyncrasies of your market – it doesn’t know what type of users visit your site. These are all things you need to *tell* GA to make it understand, and you tell these with events and other customizations”.
Ahava encourages companies to define which user interactions are desirable and then customize the collection process to register these.
“If we don’t touch it, then we will be using a definition made by some engineer years and years ago” – Simo Ahava, “Meaningful Data” Conversions@Google 2018
For example, If a video-play is registered as an event, it will negate the bounce. By tracking different events you will record a much lower bounce rate, which actually tells you something about the engagement on your site.
Ahava is helping people doing this and implementing their event tracking through Google Tag Manager. In his eyes, a tag management solution benefits the entire organization, not just the “marketer” or the “developer”. It can help everyone in the collection of meaningful data.

What’s in the future?

While we have Ahava’s attention, it seems only appropriate to grill him a bit about the future. He doesn’t reveal much, but states: “2019 will be a stellar year for Google Tag Manager. There are some absolutely incredible features coming up!”. With that as an ending note from Simo Ahava, we will simply have to wait for the reveal.
Until then, Ahava plans to continue what he is doing: Working with clients, helping out in product forums, writing his blog, speaking at conferences, and last – but definitely not least – spending time with his wife and son.

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